The London success of David Grindley’s 2004 revival of “Journey’s End,” R.C. Sherriff’s 1929 play set in the British trenches during WWI, illustrated the slow-burning drama’s capacity to resonate with audiences 75 years on. The politics, technology, media management and basic tools of war may have changed, but the drama’s insights into the psychological toll of battle and the courage and endurance of its soldiers seem more trenchant than ever in the emotionally wrenching production’s recast Broadway transfer.
The play should be a dusty relic given its single setting and archetypal characters; its focus not on ordinary soldiers but on privileged, mainly middle-class officers; and its unhurried setup and almost plotless action. And given the extent to which Sherriff allows the numbing monotony of trench life to permeate the dramatic fabric, it should — and at times does — drift toward tedium.
But Grindley’s exacting staging never shrinks from these potential stumbling blocks. He methodically follows the playwright’s careful blueprint, secure in the knowledge that when the drama’s inactivity detonates into emotional rawness, the effect will be devastating.
The production demands patience and alertness from its audience. Given the shadowy beauty of Jason Taylor’s dim lighting and the claustrophobic confines of Jonathan Fensom’s meticulously realistic, low-ceilinged dugout set, it may also require a certain amount of squinting from the mezzanine. But rarely does a play that initially seems so phlegmatic acquire such visceral power as it progresses — crescendoing in a stunning final tableau.
Which is not to say there isn’t room for growth in a cast that’s sturdy if not exemplary. Sherriff’s drama and Grindley’s approach both call for the utmost naturalism. While the performances are focused and effective, there’s still too much evidence of acting — too many signs of mastering accents, defining characters, nailing speeches.
As last season’s revival of Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing!” in this same theater showed, writing from this period requires fluency in a language full of stilted rhythms and antiquated idioms. Both plays also require well-oiled ensemble synchronicity. The cast of “Journey’s End” hasn’t quite captured yet the awkward oneness of men living shoulder-to-shoulder with each other and their fear in cramped quarters. But they’re not far off.
In the central role of Capt. Stanhope, Brit actor Hugh Dancy, with his matinee-idol good looks, credibly embodies the idea of the most handsome, popular lad at school, a star of the rugby and cricket fields who inspires hero worship in his younger friend, 2nd Lt. Raleigh (Stark Sands).
Much of the drama’s conflict early on is fueled by Stanhope’s anger when Raleigh is assigned to his company near St. Quentin, France. Stanhope is unofficially engaged to Raleigh’s sister back home, and, painfully aware of the changes wrought in him by nearly three years of commanding a unit at the front, he fears Raleigh will write to her about his copious intake of whiskey and growing irascibility.
This sense of war as a mutating force that can alter good men into demon-plagued wrecks is strongly conveyed in the writing and in Dancy’s febrile performance. He cranks up into states of extreme agitation and intensity, spewing bitter poison yet never losing sight of the compassionate man beneath the tightly wound surface.
Sands, too, is ideally cast. While the actor’s name sounds like it belongs on a porn star or a Bond girl, his face is pure boyish innocence. Fresh out of school and green to the horrors of war, Raleigh is ill-equipped to comprehend his friend’s hardened behavior, and Sands makes the doomed soldier’s bewilderment heart-breaking.
There’s also nuanced work from Boyd Gaines as former schoolmaster Lt. Osborne, whose reading material of choice, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” echoes the surreal nature of going underground to a nightmare world. Gaines expands his range as this profoundly decent man, struggling to maintain the appearance of calm that helps to stabilize the younger officers. He’s central to some of the play’s most penetrating scenes.
Jefferson Mays brings understated humor as the ingratiating cook, and John Ahlin contributes another droll characterization as amiable Trotter, a rotund second lieutenant who disguises thoughts of mortality with appreciation of simple pleasures like food, drink and gardening.
While Trotter’s accent identifies him as the only officer from the working class, that stiff-upper-lip proclivity to make polite small talk rather than confront terrifying reality is a common trait in Sherriff’s portrait of tested resilience. “There’s nothing worse than dirt in your tea,” observes Osborne stoically in the opening scene. The soldiers’ almost laughably chipper language — sprinkled with terms like “Righto,” “Old boy,” “I say” and “Simply topping” — makes the awareness of the fear churning underneath more distressing.
Aided immeasurably by Fensom and Taylor in evoking the inescapable tension of trench warfare, Grindley’s direction is measured and purposeful, never pushing too hard. By the time, during the climactic German offensive, when the grenade blasts and gunfire are amplified to such deafening levels that the theater seems to shake and the empty dugout set becomes choked with smoke and dust, it’s impossible to remain unmoved.
While it was intended not as a condemnation of war but as a salute to the men Sherriff fought beside during WWI, “Journey’s End” inevitably bristles with a sense of the human cost and futility of violent conflict. With no sign of the war in Iraq abating, and a government seemingly anxious to fire up another one in Iran, it encourages audiences to reflect deeply on their personal response to war, underscoring how far removed any reaction is from the direct experience.